Beyond Earth Day: More Must be Done to Address Environmental Racism

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By Joy and Jo Banner

Earth Day has passed but the need to continue the fight for environmental justice remains. We started our organization, the Descendants Project as a way to advance intergenerational healing and promote the flourishing of the Black descendant community in the Louisiana river parishes. Originally, this work was tied to making sure descendants of enslaved people were included in the cultural and historical tourism industries that are popular in our area. However, when the toxic Greenfield Grain Elevator put its sights on our Wallace community, we realized there was no way to address the other tenants of systemic racism without first liberating ourselves from environmental racism. 

Although the wider environmental movement historically excluded Black communities, our appreciation for the earth and the land we call home started at a young age. Our grandparents who regularly shared Creole folktales, like Compère Lapin, inspired us to be good stewards of the land and to care for our cultural heritage. Our introduction to the fight against environmental racism also started at a young age. When we were around 10 years old, Formosa plastics tried to move into our community, sending representatives to sweet talk or threaten community members into allowing them to build their toxic facilities. We saw terrible tension and anxiety well up in our community, but we were able to come together and block the toxic facility and stay in the town where our mother grew up.  

Those community tensions exist even now, as community members have to decide between the promise of jobs or protecting the air they breathe. We’ve seen overwhelming support and tension from our community around the Greenfield Grain Elevator. If allowed to proceed, the grain terminal would compromise air quality, forcing our majority Black community to experience respiratory challenges, higher rates of cancer and other illnesses.

We’ve been lucky enough to have support of the Power Coalition Environmental Justice Cohort, composed of grassroots environmental groups in the river parishes, mostly led by other Black women. The sharing of resources, experience with fighting toxic industries, and the necessary, you’re not crazy affirmations have kept us grounded throughout this work. 

We know that with the climate emergency, our work is critical. While the entire nation must focus on the climate crisis, Louisiana is in the throes of inaction. According to an Environment America Research and Policy Center report, “Louisiana’s rivers and streams are among the most toxic in the nation.” ProPublica also found that “The state has ranked No. 2 in toxic emissions, behind Texas, just about every year since 1988, when the EPA began requiring industry to tally its pollution.

The effect of the climate crisis in Louisiana is without dispute. Although the region’s rivers and streams are exceedingly toxic, a recent Supreme Court ruling in Louisiana v. American Rivers upheld a Trump administration policy radically limiting states and tribes’ ability to restrict energy projects that damage the environment and the water. The decision upends decades of settled law, and leaves Louisianians less safe and less protected. Certainly, action to protect water is warranted. While we continue to fight to ensure clean water, our broader push must be ending environmental racism in every form. 

Too many times, hazardous facilities are placed in or near Black communities, compromising the community’s health, sense of safety, and longevity. This is not hysteria. ProPublica and others have attested to the existence of what is known as Cancer Alley, “the stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.” It is so named because of its concentration of petrochemical facilities, which numbered 30 in 2019. There are more Black people in Louisiana than any other state. Wallace is also predominantly Black. That factories are permitted to be concentrated in a Black area is a testament to how corporations and local, state and federal governments view Black people. 

Moreover, a healthy environment does not happen automatically. It must be protected and preserved with ethical and enforceable policies. Local, state, and federal officials must do their job and protect our communities from environmental harms. While people of color, persons living in poverty and women and girls are least responsible for the climate emergency, they bear the toll of the climate crisis and are short changed due to environmental racism.  

As we reflect on what is needed in this fight, we look back on the 300 pound Crawfish Boil we put on for our community of Wallace to celebrate Earth Day, and the many community events, celebrations, protests, court hearings, and historical reviews to come. We look at our recent huge win against the Greenfield Grain Elevator, with the ruling that the lawsuit to correct the zoning in St. John can proceed. We stand committed to protecting the legacy of enslaved people and their descendants, both past, present, and future. For us, that is the crux of the work, and how we take meaning from the broader movement that has sprung up around loving the earth and all of its people. 

For us, it’s no surprise that Black people and especially Black women are at the helm of leading environmental work. The knowledge of the earth is powerful and lives on through descendants of the enslaved. For Black people, Earth Day is every day.